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Three Ways Lawrence of Arabia Still Captures the Middle East

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Last week brought the passing of Omar Sharif, the legendary actor who became widely known to Western audiences for his work in David Lean’s World War I classic “Lawrence of Arabia.” In that film, Sharif played Sharif Ali, a fictional composite character that becomes Lawrence’s chief adviser and ally among the Arab tribes Lawrence aims to lead.

By coincidence, also last week a 70mm print of the restored “Lawrence of Arabia” had its annual summer screening at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Md. The film remains a technical and artistic wonder. It certainly takes its share of artistic liberties: Sharif’s fictionalized Sharif Ali is one of many. However, beyond its value to film history and in spite of its Hollywood embellishments, “Lawrence” still speaks truths about the West’s relationship to the Middle East.

It’s Not All About Oil. The money and influence oil reserves bring to Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers have dominated Western involvement in the region for decades. It makes it easy to forget that the region’s fractious and violent politics predate oil’s existence. Exploration in the region began prior to the war years depicted in the film, but it would be two more decades before the Arabian Peninsula was to be known as an oil powerhouse.

Oil is not a factor in the turmoil “Lawrence” depicts. All of the film’s political struggles stem from Western colonialism and the factionalism among the Arab tribes. The film is a reminder that oil was an added catalyst for political contentions that were already present prior to its discovery.

It’s Not All About Religion. The East/West cultural divide is the film’s over-arching theme. Sharif Ali calls Lawrence “English” throughout, and being awarded tribal robes is both a great source of pride for Lawrence and disdain among his fellow British officers.

However, the sectarianism that is a central part of today’s Middle East politics is as absent as oil from “Lawrence.” The film depicts the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which served as the center of Muslim political life, and which Western powers sought to plunder at its demise. The absence of religion as a cause of conflict stands in stark contrast to current struggle against ISIS efforts to build a pan-Arab caliphate across existing regional borders. When asked if his men will join the cause of Arab freedom, tribal leader Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) responds, “What is an Arab?”

Tribal loyalties, and the people and resources tribal leaders control, are paramount. The role of religious identity has come to the political forefront in recent decades. Those in the region still place substantially less weight on colonial-era national borders than do Western powers. One might imagine a contemporary version of the film’s conversation ending in, “What is an Iraqi?”

Don’t Underestimate the Role of Politics Within Western Militaries. One of the film’s crucial relationships is that of Lawrence and Gen. Allenby, the head of British forces in the region. After Lawrence’s forces capture the port of Aqaba from the Turks, Allenby supports his ongoing rearguard actions against Turkish forces while insulating himself from them with a cynical detachment.

“I’ve got my orders, thank God,” Allenby says. “Not like that poor chap. He’s riding the whirlwind.”

Allenby flatters Lawrence’s courage, but he communicates the fact that no one of his political stature would place his reputation in jeopardy to do what Lawrence is doing. That sort of institutional conservatism, and aversion to risk-taking, is not always given its due as a cause of the inertia in the region’s politics over decades. The film does a nice job of depicting the fact that it is as present a factor in the military as it is in the diplomatic world.

“Lawrence” is a feast for the eyes even for those less concerned with the region’s politics. It gave us several performances for the ages — Sharif’s included. It is as masterful a technical achievement as we are likely to see on film (and decades before computer graphics, so every camel you see in “Lawrence” is a camel).

For those following the region’s politics, however, its concluding message is more “plus ça change” than one would hope. Fifty-three years after “Lawrence” arrived on screens, we are still describing the West’s relationship with the Middle East in similar terms. That may change. To quote one of Lawrence’s favorite sayings in the film, “Nothing is written.”


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